Tennessee moved one step closer to becoming bowl eligible Saturday. However, the way the Vols’ played against Charlotte did nothing to make one think the 4-5 Vols can become a bowl team as they slept-walked through a 14-3 win over the 49ers.
Assuming every last Vol understands that rebuilding Tennessee’s program will be a long process and not an overnight fix, there still was no excuse for the Vols to play as poorly as they did against Charlotte. Other teams can blame lackluster play on key losses that erase championship aspirations. South Carolina and Auburn come to mind. Tennessee doesn’t have that excuse.
If any of the Vols thought they would compete for a championship this season, they were completely out of touch with reality. This was a 4-8 team that went winless in the SEC last season. This was never going to be a roster worthy of going to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. This is a roster where every position is up for grabs, where every win should be coveted and maximum effort given in every game. That’s what makes the blah Charlotte win so befuddling.
Sure, the Vols lost a heartbreaking game to South Carolina the week before. So what? Tennessee’s mindset should have been to bounce back in grand fashion against an overmatched team like Charlotte. Instead, the Vols looked like they’d rather be taking final exams than taking the field against the 49ers.
So can the Vols become bowl eligible, which would be an incredible feat under first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt? We’ve thought so in previous weeks, but now? Probably not, given what transpired Saturday — and not just in Neyland Stadium.
The Vols will host Kentucky on Saturday. In case you hadn’t heard, the Cats are one of the most surprising stories in the nation. They lost 34-17 to Georgia on Saturday but Kentucky had been in contention for the SEC East until then. Kentucky might come into the Tennessee game flat after the Georgia loss, but why else would you pick the Vols to beat Kentucky? Kentucky is just a better team. Las Vegas thinks so. Kentucky is a 3.5-point favorite.
Kentucky still has some program standards to reach, too, namely a rare 10-win regular season and the chance at only its second-ever 11-win season. The Wildcats might be upset, but this is hardly the time to sulk. Assuming it is as driven as they have been all season, Kentucky will be UT’s toughest remaining test. After the Cats, the Vols will host Missouri, which crushed Florida, before traveling to Vanderbilt to close the regular season and, most likely, the entire season.
At 4-5, the Vols will have to finish 2-1 to become bowl eligible.
At 5-4, Missouri is also fighting to become bowl eligible and has an offense that will be tough to stop.
As for Vanderbilt, the Commodores are also 4-5, fighting to become bowl eligible and have fared quite well against the Vols recently. As odd as it sounds, Vandy is 4-2 against Tennessee in the past 6 years, having won the past two.
It’s possible — and quite likely — that the Vols will be underdogs in each of their final three games.
Can they pull off two upsets? Not if they play like they did against Charlotte. If UT plays as flat as they did Saturday, the Vols could lose all three games. If the Vols finish 4-8 as they did last year, there’s no suggesting this was a successful season and there’s no proof that Pruitt has this program headed in the right direction. A 4-8 record would send Tennessee fans into the long offseason simply still wondering when they might get their championship-contending program again — if ever.
Should Tennessee fans feel better with a 5-7 season, which would signify some progress? Perhaps slightly so, but don’t start planning a parade. The Vols should cherish every win they can manage, but the performance and victory against Charlotte is no cause for celebration. It was more cause for concern.